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The Film Stage’s Top 50 Films of 2017

Written by on December 30, 2017 

20. A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies)

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Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion is not just a biopic of poet Emily Dickinson. It’s one of our best directors working in top form, taking the anguish, joy, beauty, and pain of existence and rendering it through purely cinematic terms. It’s a showcase for Cynthia Nixon, whose performance is perfect in the way it captures Dickinson as a messy, imperfect, and wholly emotional being, one who longs for a satisfaction she knows she’ll never have. But above all, A Quiet Passion is an ode to Dickinson’s poetry and the struggle of life itself, where art can act as a solace for a world in desperate need for one. – C.J. P.

19. Brawl in Cell Block 99 (S. Craig Zahler)

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Poeticism meets a punch in the face. A savage and jaw-dropping descent into the bowels of hell, Brawl in Cell Block 99 also manages to be one of the strongest depictions of selfless love put to screen this year. Vince Vaughn is nothing short of a revelation, suppressing anger in his face until it quakes from his body with explosive force. Balancing buttery-smooth-yet molasses-rich dialogue with unforgettable images, Brawl presses its gnarly boot into your gut and stomps. It’s also the best title from this year, and I won’t tolerate any other contenders. Bring on Dragged Across Concrete. – Mike M.

18. Marjorie Prime (Michael Almereyda)

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Everything once-known turned opaque, mysterious, wondrous: the home as a den of memories; memories as a means of conjuring up names; names a full-force vector the joy and pain brought into our lives; lives as something to be preserved, even after the world outside has advanced remarkably, in a close space; a close space as the conduit for this year’s gentlest filmmaking; this year’s gentlest filmmaking in turn being its most consistently surprising. Received warmly upon release, to be venerated in decades to come. “I didn’t mean to make you sad.” “You didn’t. All I can think is, ‘How nice — how nice that we could love somebody.'” – Nick N.

17. Princess Cyd (Stephen Cone)

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For the majority of his career, Stephen Cone has made films about the intersection of identity and spirituality, but Princess Cyd is arguably the first wherein characters in crises of faith aren’t being threatened by their own community’s clashing values. It instead feels almost utopian — a forum for people to reckon with their own shifting beliefs and the ambiguity of the unknown. As represented by Jesse Pinnick and Rebecca Spence, respectively, the relationship between a niece and aunt becomes less about finding convergence than understanding the complexity of each other’s viewpoints. Faith and sexuality is less a matter of pat revelations than a greater holistic peace for these characters, and for the film as a whole. – Mike S.

16. Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan)

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Tossing his hat into an overstuffed genre, Christopher Nolan pitted himself against WWII masterworks for the sake of telling a relatively simple tale of heroism. In an arena already graced with Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, and after more than a decade doling out the largely fantastical, bitingly real, and relatively small-scale, Dunkirk seemed a curious passion project for the big-budget auteur. Nolan, as he’s wont to do, extrapolates the beachfront standoff over three deftly managed timelines, and opens his film at a breakneck pace that never falters or slows. Taking a cue from Spielberg (à la Jaws, not Private Ryan), he renders the Nazis a faceless terror, characterized only by their destruction. The result is a raw chronicle of hard-won survival, and a film that stands as not only a masterpiece of the genre, but the sitting champion of Nolan’s oeuvre. – Conor O.

15. On the Beach at Night Alone (Hong Sang-soo)

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The immensely prolific and consistent master Hong Sang-soo had a breakthrough year, premiering three features to wide acclaim. The only one of these released in the same year, On the Beach at Night Alone, is also the most personal his work has ever been. Featuring professional and personal partner Kim Min-hee as an actress in seclusion after her affair with a well-known director, it is a simmering yet often gentle examination of the ways in which love can both unite and irreparably break. For someone that regards Hong as one of the great filmmakers of our time, it is gratifying, surprising, and immensely assured in so many undefinable, moving ways. – Ryan S.

14. BPM (Beats Per Minute) (Robin Campillo)

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If 2017 has shown us something it’s that the personal is political, and no other film encompassed this in such a pithy, powerful way as Robin Campillo’s tribute to ACT UP. BPM (Beats Per Minute) shows what it was like to be an activist in the middle of the AIDS epidemic in the early 90s, but it also feels like a call to action for our days. No film in 2017 was sexier, more heartbreaking, and more inspiring. – Jose S.

13. mother! (Darren Aronofsky)

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Once the credits on mother! started to roll, I knew the film would provide a healthy conversation. When I showed up for our weekly podcast I wasn’t expecting one of our cohosts to literally get so frustrated with recanting his experience watching the film that he struggled to even voice his opinion beyond exasperation and we had to replace him before the podcast even started in proper. That’s when I knew it was, beyond a doubt, my favorite film of the year. From the eerie score and hypersensitive soundscape, to the way that the film unrelentingly follows star Jennifer Lawrence’s increasing displeasure in close-up, the film is one of the most audacious mainstream releases in years. And that was before an absolutely insane gonzo ending that has director Darren Aronofsky throwing everything at the audience, including the kitchen sink. This will be a film I can’t wait to show to others for years. – Bill G.

12. Song to Song (Terrence Malick)

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A cacophony, yes — images, sounds, faces (if there’s a commonality for viewers, it’s asking “is that…?” before someone quickly vanishes), locations, narrative strands, and forms (you probably forgot the sliver where a silent movie is interpolated into the movie’s dense web) — but to say so maybe obscures those micro wonders: sounds working in harmony with an image that anticipates the next cut that will take us to a logical endpoint, and back around again. If you’re into that sort of thing. I am, firmly, even when the wheels are threatening to spill right off, but that’s easy enough when it’s never without life, light, love, a roll and a tumble. At the point of rapture, it bellows: “I want you to love me, baby, or please let me be.” At a closure, or the impression of such, it croons: “Baby, it hurts; baby, it hurts; baby, it hurts to be alone.” – Nick N.

11. The Lost City of Z (James Gray)

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A sublime film steeped authentically in traditional cinematic grammar, The Lost City of Z is a textural wonder whose emphasis on a simple cut to convey meaning and feeling is likely unmatched this year. I can still feel the sunlight cutting between branches in the jungle, coated in the dense aural tinglings of flowing water and chirping insects. Filled with warmth and adventure, James Gray’s intimate epic stitches time and scenery into a divine sensory experience. In earnest, it is cinematic nirvana. – Mike M.

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